Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What can you assume the reader/spectator already knows?

This past weekend, I was able to see Throne of Blood at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival--a performance multiply adapted and translated (cross-media, cross-culture, cross-language), being Ping Chong's stage adaptation of Kurosawa's film, itself an adaptation of Macbeth. Interestingly, many of the languages being translated, one to another, were also present together on stage. A screen above the stage carried projected supertitles or filmed images, characters spoke both Japanese and English, and sometimes the English was stylized or accented in a way that emphasized its foreignness.

I have been interested for some time now in plays that mix languages on stage, and on what the effects might be for the audience. Reading bilingual Spanish/English plays (the language pair where I spend most of my time), I've speculated on the effects for a monolingual spectator. What might one fail to understand? What might be more exciting, the surprise richer because more unexpected, if things aren't fully spelled-out? So I was intrigued by the use of Japanese in the staged Throne of Blood. I noticed only two places (there might have been more, of course) when there was no move to gloss the Japanese into English. Often a character would begin in Japanese and then move to English, or a few words of Japanese would open or anchor a scene. But during the banquet scene, Lady Asaji's evident instruction to Washizu to "sit down and shut up" was not translated or glossed--though the actions of both actors made it pretty obvious what she meant. More intriguingly, in the hand washing scene, perhaps the most iconic scene of an iconic play, the lines were spoken only in Japanese (nor was there the frame that appears in Shakespeare's play, when the doctor and gentlewoman discuss Lady Macbeth's apparent hallucinations). Seeing the scene stripped down, so to speak, to the essential, desperate washing, I thought, of course, this is a stage image that requires no further explanation or translation. Everyone in the audience will recognize it.

Well, maybe. As we left the theater, almost losing our footing in the crush of spectators, I heard one of the young women who had been seated behind me talking to one of her classmates. "It's not real blood," she said, "but she feels so guilty, that's why she's washing her hands."

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